By Will Burchfield @Burchie_kid
Growing up, Chris Evans dreamed of playing football for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes offered him a scholarship in high school, a portal into his own fairytale. All he had to do was close his eyes, dive in…and he’d wake up in Ohio Stadium, dressed in scarlet and grey.
And yet Evans found himself in the Big House in his college debut, donning the maize and blue, blazing his way into Michigan’s record books.
It wasn’t just a change of plans. It was a complete 180 – like winning plane tickets to Florida and then hopping on a flight to the North Pole. Oh, Michigan and Ohio State are less than 200 miles apart, but they’re separated by so much more.
So what stopped Evans from living out his dream? And what compelled him to chase a new one? The answer lies in a story, one that crested in the summer of 2015.
Talented but overlooked
Evans attended Ben Davis High School, a growing football power on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Like most stars at that level, he played on both sides of the ball, a running back and a slot receiver on offense, a cornerback on defense. He returned punts and kicks, too. Evans did it all.
In his junior season in 2014, the 5’11 speed demon racked up 28 touchdowns – 18 rushing, 10 receiving – and over 140 yards per game. He ran circles around defenders, leaving them sprawled out in his wake, black turf beads sticking to their skin.
For whatever reason, though, Evans wasn’t a highly-regarded recruit entering his senior season. Maybe it was his size. Maybe it was his lack of a defined position. (Maybe measuring the athletic potential of 17-year-old kids is an inexact science full of mysteries and unknowns!) At any rate, Evans was an afterthought in his class of running backs, left off seemingly every recruiting list that mattered.
But his name appeared on the roster for a Michigan satellite camp in June of 2015, this one held in Indianapolis. It was there that he came across Jim Harbaugh. And it is here that the story gains steam.
“I love Michigan since my mom loves it.”
At the time, Michigan was desperate for playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. The Wolverines had struggled to score in the 2014 season and the incoming class was short on remedies. Evans, in spite of his stature, caught Harbaugh’s eye.
Naturally, Harbaugh sought out Evans’ parents.
“My mom and dad loved Coach Harbaugh,” Evans said. “He really tried to get personal with them to let them know I’ll take care of your son.”
Almost immediately, Evans’ mom was convinced that Harbaugh was the one – and that quickly rubbed off on her son.
“She was like, ‘Out of all the recruiters, I’ll drop you off with coach Harbaugh right now,’ Evans recalled. “So I was just like, I love Michigan since my Mom loves it.”
His dad climbed aboard shortly thereafter, swayed by a well-timed phone call from Harbaugh.
“I was at the Ohio State camp, and he called my dad and offered me a scholarship. My dad said, ‘Dang, Coach Harbaugh really just called me.’ And he fell in love with him,” Evans said.
By the end of June, Evans was enrolled at Michigan for the fall of 2016.
An offer rebuffed
To say Evans was overlooked by college coaches is to sell his stock short. Even though he wasn’t a sparkling five-star recruit in high school, he received over ten Division 1 offers. Michigan State came calling. Minnesota and Indiana did, too.
Then, less than a month before national signing day, his dream school stepped up.
In January of 2016, Ohio State offered Evans a scholarship. It was the realization of a life-long goal and the reward for years of hard work. After doing all he could to gain the Buckeyes’ attention in high school, courting them like an out-of-his-league crush, they finally looked his way.
And Evans turned them down.
It wasn’t an issue of pride. It wasn’t Evans’ way of getting back at the school who had ignored him. And it wasn’t a case of the pursuit outweighing the prize.
For Evans, it was an issue of loyalty.
Loyalty, and opportunity.
When Ohio State finally made their offer, they had already signed two top-ten running backs in Evans’ class. What’s more, the Buckeyes didn’t even foresee Evans playing at that position – they recruited him as a cornerback.
That’s not to say the path was clear for him at Michigan. The Wolverines had two running backs committed in their 2016 class on top of Evans, including the highly-touted Kareem Walker. But at Michigan, Evans knew he would get his shot.
When Evans arrived in Ann Arbor this summer with the rest of his freshman teammates, he was accompanied by little acclaim. The spotlight was splashed on big-time recruits like Walker, Rashan Gary and Devin Asiasi. And that suited Evans just fine.
“I was kind of under the radar coming in so nobody really knew me, but in my mind I knew I could do this,” he said.
From the get-go, Evans was diligent in his preparation and crisp in his play. This was done partly out of nature, partly by design – the fastest way to climb up the depth chart, he figured, was to avoid the ire of his combustible coach.
“He’s real intense but I made sure I got on his good side,” Evans smiled. “He wasn’t really yelling at me as much because I made sure I did what I needed to do.”
When Evans began making plays on the field, he kept his head down and continued to work hard. This quickly stood out to his teammates, who saw a freshman with top-notch skill and a welcome lack of ego.
“Chris is amazing, and he’s a humble guy. He’s not one of those guys who was a freshman who just lives it up and all this,” said senior fullback Khalid Hill.
“It’s kind of shocking,” he added. “A lot of those guys come in big-headed sometimes, but our freshman who are playing came in with a close mind, like, ‘I’m here to produce, I’m here to play.’”
Junior quarterback Wilton Speight had hardly heard of Evans before training camp began. When that changed – and it changed in a flash – Speight noticed Evans stayed the same.
“From the first day of camp he was making plays, and I didn’t even know much about him. I knew he was just a recruited kid out of Indiana. But then after two days of training camp we all knew who Chris Evans was.
The best part about it is he doesn’t let anything get to his head, he just goes about his business,” Speight said.
Evans maintained this conscientious approach throughout training camp and the team’s early September practices. The night before Michigan’s season-opener against Hawaii, he sat down for an hour with junior fullback Joe Beneducci to review his assignments. Evans didn’t expect to play a whole lot the following afternoon, but just to be safe, just to be sure, he felt like it was the right thing to do.
Into the record books
Midway through the first quarter, with Michigan facing a third-and-two, Evans was thrust into action. He promptly ripped off a seven-yard run, setting up a touchdown three plays later.
But the freshman was only getting started.
He flashed his elusiveness on an 18-yard touchdown run late in the first half when he beat his defender to the edge, weaved through traffic down the sideline and then dove successfully for the pylon.
As he was scampering toward the end zone, Harbaugh’s voice was echoing in Evans’ mind.
“Something happened in practice [last week] and coach said, ‘Make sure you get the ball on the pylon.’ So through my head I was like, ‘Okay, I’m just going to to make sure I get it like he said.’”
Then, on Michigan’s first drive of the second half, Evans flaunted his breakaway speed. The offensive line opened up a hole at the line of scrimmage and the freshman burst through it like a missile, racing 43 yards to the end zone.
Evans, hardly even sniffed by the defense, took time to savor the moment.
“It was just crazy. I’ve seen the Big House roar but I’ve never seen it roar for me, so it was a totally different feeling, it was crazy,” he said.
At the end of the day, Evans finished with two touchdowns and 112 yards on eight carries, becoming just the third running back in program history to rush for over 100 yards in his Michigan debut.
Ho-hum, his teammates said.
“It didn’t surprise me at all,” said senior linebacker Michael McCray. “Going against him every day, I see it in practice all the time and I kind of expected it to happen.”
“A special player.”
Evans was one of 16 freshmen to play against Hawaii, a program record. When Harbaugh was asked about their collective performance afterward, he winded his way through a series of clichés about effort and competitiveness and rising to the occasion. He didn’t mention a single player by name.
Except for one.
“I knew Chris Evans was special,” Harbaugh said. “What you saw today was what we’ve been seeing in practice for the last month. He’s a special player and I expect special things going forward. He really can do everything you’d want a back to do: he blocks, he runs the ball between the tackles, he can run it on the edge, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, he’s a good contributor on special teams as well.”
“You didn’t even get to see everything that he can do,” he added.
Evans surely earned more playing time with Saturday’s breakout performance, but that’s not something he’s worried about. He shared the carries against Hawaii with five other tailbacks, and he sees it as a team effort moving forward.
“I don’t really look forward to see who’s going to play, I just know one of us is going to be out there and I know one of us is going to make a play for the team,” he said.
Harbaugh indicated that Evans’ role will expand as the season continues. His versatility makes him a unique weapon and it’s only a matter of time before Michigan harnesses his full potential. Evans, for his part, has one preference when it comes to how he’s used.
“What I like best is whatever helps the team out. If they want me on the sideline, if that’s what’s best for the team, that’s what I’ll do,” he said.
Evans’ story has hardly been predicable, but that feels like one twist we can all rule out.